Who should I Choose as Sandek?
Aharon calls: “I would prefer asking my Rosh Yeshivah to be sandek, but I know that my father is expecting the honor. What should I do?”
As I arrive for the bris, the two new grandfathers approach me: “We would like to ask a psak halachah: Which one of us should be the sandek?”
“I would like to ask my father to be the sandek, but my wife feels that her grandfather should be honored.”
“At a Sefardic bris I noticed that the sandek remained sitting even after the bris itself, and the baby remained on his lap through the naming ceremony. Afterwards, the sandek remained seated, and the attendees lined up to seek his blessing. Why were they doing this?”
The greatest of the honors given at a bris is holding the baby during the bris itself; the person who does this is called the sandek (Maharil). Many authorities rule that the sandek receives greater honors than either the mohel or the father of the newborn, ruling that he has preference over them for an aliyah on the day of the bris (Rama, Yoreh Deah 265:11; Magen Avraham 282:18; cf., however, Shaarei Efrayim 2:12, who notes that this depends on local custom, and in his locale they did not give aliyos to the sandek or the mohel.)
Why the Sandek?
Why should the sandek deserve the highest honor? After all, if we honor him because he is performing a big mitzvah, then the honor should go to the mohel who is performing a far greater mitzvah – the bris itself. On the other hand, if it bestowed because it is a personal celebration, then it should go to the father of the baby.
The halachic authorities explain that since performing a bris milah is considered like the offering of a korban (Zohar, Parshas Lech Lecha), the sandek’s lap functions as the mizbei’ach, the altar, on which this korban is offered (Maharil; Toras Chayim, Sanhedrin 89b). The Maharil compares the sandek’s role to that of the kohen offering the ketores, the incense, in the Beis Hamikdash, explaining that for this reason the sandek is granted top honors. However, others note that this analysis is unclear, since it is the mohel who “offers” the korban by performing the mitzvah, and therefore he should be more closely compared to the kohen offering the ketores, not the sandek who is functioning as the “mizbei’ach” [Shu”t Noda BeYehudah, Yoreh Deah 1:86]. We will discuss this point later.
Halachic sources mention that one should strive to perform the mitzvah of being sandek and even spend large sums of money to accomplish this (Migdal Oz, quoted in Sefer HaBris pg 313). These authorities suggest that it is for this precise reason that the sandek has preference for an aliyah – he receives honor for showing that he endears mitzvos so much that he is willing to spend much money to fulfill them.
We find many customs associated with being honored with sandek. In some places, the sandek paid for all the costs of the seudah, the festive meal served in honor of the bris. In other communities, there was a custom that the sandek paid for the first schar limud – the first Torah tuition of the child. The source for this second custom is the brachah given immediately following the bris, kesheim shenichnas labris kein yikaneis letorah ulechupah ulemaasim tovim, just as he entered the bris, he should enter studying Torah, marriage and good deeds. The sandek, who participated in the bris, thanks the parents for being honored by participating in the next step, the child’s growing in Torah.
Some explain that being sandek is a segulah for wealth, although many dispute the existence of such a segulah, noting that many great talmidei chachamim were sandek numerous times yet remained poor as shul mice.
Another famous custom, mentioned by early authorities, is that a family should not honor the same person with sandek for a second time; which means that each of their sons requires a different sandek (Maharil; Rama). Although many authorities dispute whether one need follow this custom (Shu”t Noda BeYehudah), this practice is fairly common in Ashkenazic communities with one exception: That the local rav or rosh yeshivah is often presented this honor many times.
As a matter of fact, the honor of being sandek was considered so special that some communities had the custom that the father did not choose the sandek; instead, the community sold the right to the mitzvah and used the funds for charitable purposes (Otzar Habris 2: pg 255; see Derishah and Taz, Yoreh Deah 249:1 who discuss use of maaser kesafim to purchase the right to be the sandek). In other communities, they always gave the honor to the local rav (mentioned in Shu”t Noda BeYehudah, Yoreh Deah 1:86). However, in most locales, the father chooses this honoree. What factors should one consider when choosing the sandek?
The Greatest Tzadik
The Rama says that one should choose the biggest tzadikim that one can find to be the sandek and the mohel (Yoreh Deah 264:1). It is because of this Rama that many honor their rosh yeshiva, rav or a different talmid chacham with being sandek. Other sources require only that the sandek be a “good Jew,” meaning someone who observes the mitzvos properly, so that Eliyahu Hanavi will want to join him at the bris (Ohr Zarua; Rikanati #590, quoting a Medrash; Maharil). Although they certainly agree that it is preferable to choose a big tzadik, should one risk offending a family member?
We can now fully appreciate Aharon’s question: “I would prefer asking my Rosh Yeshivah to be sandek, but I know that my father is expecting the honor. What should I do?” Do we find halachic precedent with which to guide Aharon?
Family or Scholar?
I found halachah works that compared Aharon’s predicament to a question that was asked of one of the great authorities of the late 17th – early 18th Centuries, the Chacham Tzvi (Shu”t #69, 70).
A man, let us call him Yaakov, passed on, leaving an adult son from a previous marriage, and a young pregnant widow. Yaakov’s son had recently become a mohel, although he did not have much experience. For previous brissin, Yaakov had used a certain respected talmid chacham as the mohel, and when Yaakov took ill, he had appointed this talmid chacham to oversee the affairs of his children. When the widow gave birth to a boy, she wanted the experienced mohel, to whom she owed much gratitude and who was also a talmid chacham, to perform the bris, rather than the newborn’s older brother who was relatively inexperienced. One can certainly see the logic behind her position, and most of us would probably instinctively side with her opinion.
Nevertheless, the Chacham Tzvi rules that the older brother should perform the bris, because one should give a close relative the opportunity to perform a mitzvah even ahead of a talmid chacham.
Based on this ruling, I found authorities who rule that one should select a family member, provided of course that he is fully observant, for sandek ahead of a talmid chacham. This approach would of course guide Aharon to choose his father ahead of his Rosh Yeshiva, but I suggest that each individual discuss their specific question with their posek.
At this point, let us address the next question that I mentioned above:
As I arrive for the bris, the two new grandfathers approach me: “We want to ask a shaylah: Which one of us should be the sandek?”
This situation actually happened once. Not wanting to ruffle anyone’s feathers, the baby’s father left it for the two grandfathers to decide. Fortunately, they were both easy-going and eager to do what is halachically preferred. I will explain the basis for my answer to them.
In most of our interpersonal relationships, we do not need to decide whom I am required to honor more than another person. However, the particular questions regarding which person to honor as sandek lead us to explore the following issue: Since one must choose only one sandek, whom is the new father required to honor more?
An Early Response
Fortunately, we already find this issue discussed by halachic authorities as early as the Fourteenth Century, in a work called Leket Yosher. There we find the following rulings:
“The father of a newborn boy who does not want to be the sandek himself out of desire to create peace and share honor with others, should give the honor to his own father, the baby’s paternal grandfather, ahead of the baby’s greatgrandfather, since the mitzvah of honoring one’s father is greater than that of honoring one’s grandfather. However, if the baby’s paternal grandfather prefers that his own father (the baby’s greatgrandfather) be honored, then it is fine to give the honor to the greatgrandfather, and that is the prevalent custom, based on an adage that one who is sandek for his greatgrandchild will never face gehenom.”
Being Sandek Yourself
We can derive a total of five interesting halachic points from this passage.
1. The father of the child can certainly choose to keep the honor of sandek for himself. The requirement to show honor to others does not preempt my right to fulfill the mitzvah myself should I choose to.
I will mention that, of the hundreds of brissin that I have attended over the years, I have seen the father act as sandek on only a few occasions. However, one highly regarded authority rules that if the father cannot perform the bris himself, which is his mitzvah, he should act as sandek, since the sandek assists the mohel in performing the bris (Shu”t Divrei Malkiel 4:86).
Although the halachic reasoning here is extremely solid, this practice is fairly uncommon, presumably for the exact reasons mentioned by Leket Yosher: the father would prefer to share the honors and the mitzvah with others, and he feels that more shalom is generated this way. Indeed, in both instances that I have seen the father be the sandek for his own child, it was not the first bris in the family, and the family members who might expect this honor had been honored as sandek at previous brissin.
2. A second point we see from the Leket Yosher, is that when determining who should be sandek, one should follow the usual rules governing whom one is required to honor. Thus, since the responsibility to honor one’s father is greater than honoring one’s grandfather, the father of the newborn should therefore honor his own father, the baby’s paternal grandfather, with being sandek. Although one is responsible to show honor to one’s grandfather, one has a greater responsibility to honor one’s own father (Rama, both in Yoreh Deah 240:24 and in his responsum #118).
3. The baby’s paternal grandfather may defer the honor to his own father, in order to accomplish his own mitzvah of kibud av, should he desire to. Leket Yosher reports that the common custom was indeed to do this.
4. The Leket Yosher mentions an additional reason to honor the greatgrandfather with being sandek. He cites an adage that being sandek for one’s greatgrandson protects the greatgrandfather from gehenom, although the Leket Yosher quotes no halachic source for this segulah other than that it was common for people to say so. Presumably, even if there is no halachic source for such an idea, the fact that people believe it to be so itself makes it a reason to honor the greatgrandfather.
5. The Leket Yosher makes no mention of honoring the maternal grandfather or the maternal greatgrandfathers. It seems that the reason for this omission is obvious:
Although one is required to honor one’s father-in-law, there is a greater responsibility to honor one’s own father. Thus, in the absence of paternal male antecedents, one should honor the mother’s father or grandfather. However, when the paternal grandfather is present, the responsibility of the baby’s father to honor his own father precedes his responsibility to honor his father-in-law.
At this point, I can present what I answered the two grandfathers. Since the right to provide the honor belongs to the father of the baby, he has greater responsibility to honor his father than he does to honor his father-in-law. Therefore, the paternal grandfather should be the sandek. Indeed, I found that in several places the prevalent custom was to honor the paternal grandfather with being sandek at the first bris, and the maternal grandfather at the second (Otzar Habris Volume 2, page 254).
His Father or Her Grandfather?
At this point, we can also address the third question I raised above:
“I would like my father to be the sandek, but my wife feels that her grandfather should be honored.”
As we see from the above discussion, the father of the baby has a greater responsibility to honor his father over his wife’s grandfather, even though Zeide is a generation older. But I note here that one should realize that each individual situation may have other factors involved, and that the most important factor is that we achieve maximum shalom. Again, one should consult with a rav for guidance.
Let us now examine the fourth question I mentioned above: “Someone attending a Sefardic bris noticed that the sandek remained sitting even after the bris itself, and the baby remained on his lap through the naming ceremony. Afterwards, the sandek remained on his seat, and the attendees lined up to seek his blessing. Why were they doing this?”
Allow me to provide some background. After the mohel performs the bris itself, the baby, now bearing his eternal Jewish sign, is named. There are two widespread customs as to who holds the baby while he is being named.
The prevalent, although not exclusive, practice among Ashkenazim is that someone not previously honored at this bris is called forward to hold the baby while he is named. This honor is usually called either the sandek me’umad, literally, the standing sandek, or amidah lebrachos, the one who stands holding the baby while the blessings and prayers are recited.
The prevalent Sefardic approach is that the sandek remains sitting and continues holding the baby while he is named. In other words, there is one less kibud – the sandek who holds the baby during the actual bris holds the baby throughout the remainder of the ceremony. Although most are familiar with this as a Sefardic practice, many Ashkenazic sources mention it (Rabbi Akiva Eiger Comments to Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 265:1, quoting Toras Chayim to Sanhedrin 89b). Indeed, I know several leading Ashkenazic gedolim who prefer this practice.
No “Standing Sandek”
What is the basis for this practice?
To understand this practice, we need to present and explain a short piece of aggadic Gemara.
The Gemara teaches: Rabbi Berechyah said, “One who desires to pour wine libations on the mizbei’ach, should fill the throats of Torah scholars with wine” (Yoma 71a).
One could interpret this Gemara as meaning that supporting needy Torah scholars is considered as meritorious as offering wine on the mizbei’ach. However, there are several reasons why this interpretation of the Gemara does not explain it fully.
1. Why specifically refer to wine; people who need support require bread rather than wine?
2. The Gemara makes no reference to “needy Torah scholars,” but only to “Torah scholars,” implying that it is not extolling the concept of tzedakah, but some different idea.
3. Why does the Gemara use the seeming unflattering expression fill the throats, rather than a more polite description, such as: should provide them with wine, or give them wine to drink. Filling someone’s throat is not exactly a polite way of saying that one is providing wine.
To answer the above questions, the Toras Chayim explains this Gemara as referring to a very specific time that one is supplying the Torah scholar with wine. As I mentioned above, the Zohar refers to bris milah as offering a korban. If the bris itself is a korban, then the sandek, on whose knees the bris is performed, is a mizbei’ach, and having him drink wine can be compared to offering libations on the mizbei’ach. The Toras Chayim explains that this is called “filling his throat” since we are comparing the sandek drinking the wine to “filling” the top of the receptacles of the mizbei’ach where the kohen pours the wine libations.
Based on this analysis, the Toras Chayim concludes that the sandek should remain sitting with the baby on his lap until after the baby is named and the wine is drunk. He further contends that the cup of wine, or at least some of it, should be drunk by the sandek. As long as the baby remains on the sandek’s lap, he is still comparable to a mizbei’ach.
Based on this concept, Sefardim have a custom that the sandek holds the baby on his lap through the naming, and that the Sandek remains seated for several minutes after the bris. During this time people cluster around the sandek, requesting that he bless them for whatever blessing they would like. Since he has achieved the exalted status of being comparable to a mizbei’ach, he has the ability to bless others.
Although we have shown many ways to prioritize the honor of being sandek, we should note that an important factor in choosing a sandek is that he be someone that Eliyahu would want to join. We should bear in mind that Eliyahu is not only the malach habris, the angel who attends the bris, but also Pinchas, the bringer and angel of peace. Thus, we should remember that bringing peace to all the baalei simchah should be a highest priority in choosing the honorees.